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Confused about what to do in College

  1. Aug 31, 2014 #1
    As a senior in High School in Chicago, I was planning on pursuing a Masters Degree in physics at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. That being said I had a few questions about the career (I don't know any Physicists personally to ask):
    1. How easy is it to find a job with a Bachelor of Liberal Arts in Physics compared to a Bachelor in Engineering Physics?
    (I might need to find a job after my Bachelor's and the university offers these two courses)
    2. How much of a benefit does a Masters degree in Physics give as opposed to Bachelors?
    (I do not want to go into teaching)
    3. Is it worth it to pursue a Ph.D.?
    4. Is it bad to go into engineering with a physics degree instead of an engineering degree?
    5. Is that the same case with Medical, Computer Science, and Finance as well?
    (I have heard that many physicists go into these fields)
    6. How competitive is the job market for people with physics degrees?
    (I plan on moving around a lot, so I will switch jobs often)
    7. Can a person with a physics degree switch fields often (Finance, Engineering, etc.)?
    (As I said before, many physicists go into other fields, so is it possible to switch around)
    Thank you in advance.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 31, 2014 #2


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    If you are going to spend several years and thousands of dollars on a college education, make sure you have a plan for what to do after college is over.

    If you want to be an engineer, IMO, don't mess around getting something other than an engineering degree. (There are many different types of engineering, so it's important to pick the type of engineering you want to practice.) Ditto with a career in Finance, CS, medical field, etc. If a prospective employer in one of these occupations is looking at the resumes of several candidates, he's probably going to pick the candidate with the most relevant training and education.

    The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes an Occupational Outlook Handbook:


    This is a brief guide to the type of degree or training desired for a number of different fields, est. job growth over the next decade, and mean salary info. Since you are interested in several different fields, you should study this guide carefully.

    Also, it's important to understand that the college education is only part of the training required for many occupations, even professional ones. The experience you gain at work forms an important part of your total knowledge of a field like engineering, finance, etc. You will find it difficult to start as an engineer, for example, then switch to finance or something else, then switch again.

    Each time you switch careers, you basically start at the bottom and have to work at accumulating experience in your new job. It's more complicated to change a professional career than say, starting at McDonalds working after school, and then quitting that job and going to work at Walmart or something.
  4. Aug 31, 2014 #3
    Thanks for the information, but I would rather be a physicist than any other career.
    What you are saying here makes sense, but why is a physics masters degree rated one of the best masters degrees from many sources?
    http://www.forbes.com/pictures/efkk45ejkgg/no-2-best-masters-degree-for-jobs-physics/ [Broken]
    http://www.forbes.com/pictures/efkk45ifij/no-6-best-masters-degree-for-jobs-physics/ [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  5. Aug 31, 2014 #4
    That's a good question, I don't know the answer... I have a masters degree in physics. I spent years unemployed and working in a restaurant. I went back for engineering to get a career style job.

    I've seen the links you post too... Senior software developer with a physics degree? Maybe if you did research that developed those skills and progressed in your career for years. My BS and MS required classes including zero programming. I took one on my own volition and one as an engineering student too. Also, school teacher for 70k a year? Damn, thats crazy high pay. Smells fishy to me...

    Most of my fellow grads at the MS level did become school teachers. (Same for the BS level). I' be surprised if they were making that kind of money, but maybe they are...

    Its hard to think of any situation where a mere MS would get a job title as "Physicist". Maybe as an assistant in a national lab? I'm skeptical.
  6. Aug 31, 2014 #5


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    You have to be careful here. Many of these links use the rankings of salaries to determine which are the 'best' masters degrees to have. But the salaries listed are for 'median mid-career' individuals, which means someone with not only a masters degree, but also who has worked for probably 15-20 years in the field. IOW, someone who not only has the academic qualifications, but who has amassed a significant amount of experience. You can't expect to obtain such a salary right out of college with zero experience.

    Also, a lot of the technical jobs can easily be moved offshore. If the candidates for a particular physics job in the US all want a salary of $100K plus good benefits, organizations now have the incentive to look for cheaper workers overseas. With data and videos being easily sent across the world by internet, you don't always have to do the work here in the US. There are certain occupations where someone must be physically present in order to do the work, but physics is not necessarily one of them.

    If you looked at similar rankings 10 or fifteen years ago, an attorney with an advanced degree like a JD would probably have ranked pretty high. Now, there is a surplus of attorney gradates looking for entry level positions, and starting salaries have been hammered down as a result. In 5 or 10 years, who knows what other professions will experience the same kind of downgrading in desirability?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  7. Aug 31, 2014 #6
    So are you recommending not going down the physics road unless you have a Ph. D.?
  8. Aug 31, 2014 #7


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    I would recommend a BS in physics, and if one interested in applied physics, then perhaps some engineering courses are appropriate.

    MS usually means some supervised or guide research, and a PhD involves some independent and original research. These days, one should probably have at least a MS degree, and usually in a critical area.

    As for competitiveness, all fields are competitive.

    A person with a physics degree could move into engineering easily, or at least should be able to. If one does computational physics or applied math, while learning programming, then one might be able to get a job in finance. If finance is of interest, then perhaps one can take some courses in business and finance.
  9. Aug 31, 2014 #8
    I don't think a BS would be appropriate for me for 2 reasons:
    1. Not enough of a starting salary
    2. (Not being vain) I could go further than a BS, I would probably be disowned by my family if I just went with a BS.
  10. Aug 31, 2014 #9
    That would be my recommendation, absolutely. I would only recommend doing a physics BS if you want to teach at school or go on to a PhD. In my experience the vast majority of early BS students do want to go on to a PhD. By the time grad school comes around, many do and many do grad work in some other field as a plan B.

    I think the ability to get an engineering job with only physics degrees is very overstated. I say this as an "engineer" (job title) with only physics degrees. (I did take electrical engineering classes in the years I was un/under-employed. These were of more interest to my employer than any of my quantum, stat. mech, etc.)
  11. Aug 31, 2014 #10
    Thank you ModusPwnd, I don't think I have the motivation to go that far. What would you guys recommend is the best degree to get if I want employment at a national laboratory (Los Alamos, Argonne, Brookhaven, etc. (even fermilab)) and I don't want to be in college for more than 3 years after undergrad. I am ok with going into any physics, math, or engineering degrees.
  12. Aug 31, 2014 #11
    I largely agree with Steaming and ModusPwned, what they've written matches my experience and understanding.

    In my time at an engineering firm it was clear I'd never have the clout that an engineer with a PE would have. Not all firms are like that, but there are plenty that are.
  13. Aug 31, 2014 #12
    Depends on what you want to do at the national lab... Im sure they hire receptionists, janitors and cooks with no degree at all. I know that is not what you mean, but its just a point. I do believe they hire science BS/MS and engineering BS/MS as some type of assistant or technician at national labs. To be a researcher though you should probably get a PhD and probably post-doc.
  14. Aug 31, 2014 #13
    I wanted to be a technician, but do have a good chance of getting a job there if i'm going for an engineering BS?
  15. Aug 31, 2014 #14
    I have no idea, depends on how good you are and what connections you have. The technicians at my job have various 2-year and 4-year degrees. I think its a viable goal to get a job as a technician at a national lab with an engineering BS. Try to do an internship at one or intern somewhere as a technician in order to make yourself more marketable.
  16. Sep 1, 2014 #15


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    I work at a national lab. If you want to be a technician at one, they typically have two-year degrees and not very exciting jobs (in my opinion). Also, I should tell you that we have MANY fewer technicians than we used to, as the scientific staff is expected to do more and more of that work. It is one of the ways we are dealing with long-term budget issues.

    If you want to work in a scientific or engineering role, I'd go for an MS in engineering (you said don't want to be in school long enough to get a PhD). It's quite difficult for even a PhD physicist to get a job here. Postdocs aren't so bad but career jobs are quite rare.

    I should also tell you that there is a lot of competition. Most of the group I'm in (I'm an engineer) has PhDs. The only BS holders (there are a couple) are over 50. This should tell you about how times are changing.

    The real key to working here is having an established relationship. We get a lot of applications when we have a job opening but often they go to someone who was a superstar as an intern or grad student. Since you're in Chicago, try to intern at Fermilab or Argonne and do a fantastic job while you're there. A student showing real initiative is rare and it can take you a long way.

    That said, engineering jobs in companies are more plentiful at the MS level. Network, network, network!
  17. Sep 1, 2014 #16
    Thanks, I have officially switched from a physics path to an engineering course. I just can't decide whether I should go with Engineering Physics, Electrical Engineering, or even Nuclear Engineering. I plan on going to UIUC which has one of the best programs for all of them. It was kind of dream to work at a research lab.
  18. Sep 1, 2014 #17


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    Some other people on the forum disagree, but in my opinion Engineering Physics isn't a strong degree because it is unfocused. I'm an Electrical Engineer so I'm biased but I think it is a truly fascinating field. UIUC is a fantastic school.

    Don't give up on your dream of a research lab if that is what you want to do. I work at a national lab (like I said before) and we have as many EEs as physicists working here. I get to work on large research projects and it is as incredible privilege. I jump out of bed every morning to get to work, and I know how lucky I am to say that. Good luck on your journey!
  19. Sep 1, 2014 #18
    I appreciate the insight. If you mind me asking, How much do you make at the lab as an EE and which college did you go to?
  20. Sep 1, 2014 #19


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    I make less at the lab in 2014 than I made in industry in 2008 (2008 was my peak earnings year). *sigh*. But.... my quality of life is off the charts so that makes up for it. That said, I make a comfortable living. It's just that my former classmates working at Apple are killing it, and I'm not so sometimes I guess I get jealous.

    I got a PhD at one of the University of California campuses (don't want to give too much detail).
  21. Sep 1, 2014 #20
    Thanks, I was kind of looking for more information but it's fine if you are not comfortable sharing it.
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